Guest written by Catherine Barrago.
“I never allowed myself to think I could be a mother. I was afraid of being ill and having my child taken away from me. In part, my fears stemmed from the judgement I’d experienced from others about my bipolar affective disorder diagnosis, which I received at the age of 21. In the 15 years since, the stigma of the diagnosis has weighed heavily on me, not helped by my mum’s significant mental health issues, which affected me growing up. But a big part of me was also too frightened to believe that I could have something so wonderful, something I’d yearned for. I didn’t think I deserved that amount of happiness.
Bipolar is a curious creature which even I don’t understand. For me, the lows outweigh the highs which, when they come, feel like a wonderful rainbow filter, where everything and anything is possible. I am unable to see the thousands of pounds of debt racking up or the concern of others about my eccentric behaviour. The lows have resulted in abandoning a PhD, leaving a highly successful job because I convinced myself I wasn’t good enough and becoming entwined in a sticky mess of severe depression.
I fell pregnant out of the blue. For most people, it’s a moment of pure joy, and I was over the moon, but my happiness was instantly tainted by my illness. First, it was disputed whether the meds I was on were safe to take during pregnancy. Despite previous reassurance from a specialist psychiatrist, taking them felt different now that there was even a chance they could make my baby ill. I stopped taking my lithium (one of the most widely used medicines for bipolar) and deteriorated within weeks, needing time off work. It reached a point where things were so bad, sobbing during an appointment with my caring GP, that I realised I needed to go back on lithium to be a healthy mum.
During my pregnancy, I had frequent scans to check there were no heart defects and it was always an intense relief when everything was fine. The stress was unbearable; I just wanted to enjoy being pregnant and get excited as other expectant mums do. Work colleagues didn’t know about my illness or that my pregnancy was high risk, so I was consistently apologising for my numerous healthcare appointments.
Through the help of my psychiatrist, I finally got a lot of specialist support at around five months pregnant, including a perinatal mental health nurse and a mental health midwife, who told me I was a high risk for postpartum psychosis. The fact that I could become incredibly ill after having my baby was a constant cloud over me and left me feeling so anxious about the unknown. Having their support – along with that of my husband – saved me.
I gave birth to a healthy baby girl on a hot summer’s day. She was, and is, the most beautiful thing in my life. I decided to have a planned c-section to minimise the potential trauma. My mental health care coordinator was there immediately after the birth to check I was ok and arranged a private room in the maternity wing. My husband was allowed to stay with me and the midwives were told to give me additional support as I may become unwell. For me, the NHS care was amazing, but I know the support that I received was only put in place recently. It really is a postcode lottery.
While I lost a lot of blood during the c-section and was in a blur like any new mum, I didn’t experience psychosis, but when my daughter was four months old, I developed severe anxiety and low moods. I was afraid of everything. Even taking a shower, in case the water wouldn’t turn off. I went to baby groups and classes, but I worried that other mums would think I was different, which hindered forming meaningful relationships. Returning to work during a pandemic when my daughter was 18-months-old put an extra strain on me as I felt I was failing at everything. My manager was sympathetic but, it was so hard to articulate how low I felt.
Things finally improved when my daughter turned three and when I got a new med combination from my psychiatrist and peer support from a local perinatal mental health charity. I wasn’t lifted overnight, but my confidence grew. I became proud of how I was raising my daughter and started to make more connections locally with other mums. This really helped, and even though I didn’t talk about my illness, it was good just to talk to others about motherhood. Hearing about how other mums had struggled, especially those with postnatal depression, I didn’t feel completely abnormal.
I may be still anxious about being viewed as a bad mother, like I’m hiding some dark secret, but the anxiety has become more manageable and I feel increasingly confident as my daughter develops into a wonderful person. For anyone facing mental health issues and pregnancy, my advice would be to embrace the support around you and remember if you feel frightened, you are not alone. My illness may cause clouds of darkness but my daughter is my ray of light.”